Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order on Thursday as Maine set another daily record for COVID-19 cases, mandating face masks in public settings regardless of physical distance from other people.

The move comes just four days after Mills set other restrictions in response to soaring case numbers, including postponing bar reopenings and reducing the maximum size of public gatherings.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 183 new cases of COVID-19, a record number of daily cases for the third straight day. There were 151 new cases on Wednesday and 127 on Tuesday.

The seven-day daily average of new cases increased to 118.7, compared to 67 a week ago and 33.4 a month ago. On Thursday, 38 people were in the hospital, including 17 in intensive care. That’s up from an average of 8-10 hospitalizations and one or two people in intensive care two weeks ago.

Mills’ executive order Thursday strengthens the existing mandate on face coverings and is similar to what Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker put in place earlier this week. Face coverings in Maine are now required in all public places – essentially anywhere people might interact with others – regardless of whether distancing is possible.

Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said the idea is right.

“If everyone is wearing them, it means people are thinking about the virus all the time in public, which is good,” he said. “I don’t think people should be ticketed for not wearing them, but I think we should get to a place where it’s socially unacceptable.”

Scarborough’s police chief, Robbie Moulton, said his department will enforce the governor’s mandate, but not until efforts to convince a person to comply have failed.

People walk along Congress Street in Portland on Thursday, past Mechanics Hall. Banners created by Creative Portland were hung across the city recently to remind people to wear masks. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Our focus is really going to be on education,” the chief said. “I’d hate to be put in the position of having to take enforcement action because a person refuses to wear a mask. From what I’m seeing now, most people are wearing a mask on their own.”

Moulton said he is planning to deploy community ambassadors, mostly citizen volunteers, at large public events and gatherings to educate and remind people about the benefits of wearing masks and social distancing. The program was used last summer at town beaches and went over well with most of the public, he said.

“I think that sometimes all it takes is a reminder. Our goal will always be voluntary compliance,” Moulton said.

The most substantial differences between the new mask order and one that had been in place since July is that people are now required to wear masks in most places outdoors, and that small-business owners will be required to inform the public of the mask requirement.

“Owners and operators of all indoor public settings in Maine must now post plainly visible signs notifying entrants of the requirement to wear cloth face coverings, and may deny service or entry for non-compliance,” the governor’s office said in a news release.

Previously, only certain types of businesses, such as larger retail establishments, were responsible for implementing measures requiring customers to comply.

Members of the Retail Association of Maine have reacted favorably to the governor’s order, said Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the group representing 350 businesses across the state.

“It’s helpful in that the order clarifies what has already been in place,” Picard said. “It makes it very clear that everyone (who enters an establishment) is expected to wear a mask. I think that at this point in the pandemic most people are pretty accustomed to wearing a mask.”

Under Mills’ mandate, stores, no matter their size, can refuse service to non-mask wearing customers, provided that the store can make other accommodations – especially for people with medical exceptions – to serve a customer, Picard explained.

A public setting is defined broadly in the order. For instance, in almost all indoor public places a mask is required, and masks are required outdoors at “playgrounds, parking lots, sidewalks, athletic and sports venues, and other areas such as lines for takeout service.” Masks are also required on public transportation and “buildings and grounds that are typically accessible to the public.”

For people who exercise outdoors and are concerned about how the mask mandate might affect their workouts, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine says that common sense should rule.

“For people who are outside and are running, bicycling or walking it’s really contextual,” said Jean Sideris, the coalition’s executive director. “If you are in a busy, congested area, everyone should wear a mask.”

On the flip side, wearing a mask if you are cycling, running or walking alone on a rural road probably isn’t necessary. “The key phrase for me is wear a mask when you might have to interact with other people,” she said, noting that cyclists, walkers and runners should always have a mask with them.

Maine Republicans criticized Mills for the sweeping mandate.

“While we agree it is important for Mainers to take precautions and keep themselves safe, instituting a mandatory mask mandate in all public spaces is beyond excessive,” state party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said in a written statement.

Kouzounas said the order requires masks even if “you’re walking in your neighborhood with nobody around or hunting by yourself in the woods” and that Mills doesn’t believe “Mainers are intelligent enough to understand when they should wear a mask.”

Lindsay Crete, spokeswoman for Mills, said in an email response to questions that Republicans were mischaracterizing the executive order.

“The Maine Republican Party’s characterization of the executive order is inaccurate,” Crete wrote. “If someone is in a public space, and there is a possibility they may encounter someone else, they should wear a face covering. If someone is asking themselves whether they should wear a face covering, the answer is most likely yes. This is not about partisan politics – it is about public health. Governor Mills agrees with Republican Governor Charlie Baker when he says “If people would just wear these things religiously for 30 days, we could kill the virus.”

But the order encompasses many aspects of life, and the examples given are “including but not limited to,” which means that almost any public setting could be considered part of the mask mandate.

But Crete said it is not designed to require people who are in remote locations – such as hiking in the woods far from others – to wear a mask.

“Hiking trails are not within the definition of “public setting” so the requirement would not apply there. However, if someone is in a public setting, and there is a possibility they may encounter someone else, they should wear a face covering,” Crete wrote.

Asked about enforcement, Crete said, “people who are warned about the face covering requirement and insist on entering an establishment may be refused service and/or charged with trespassing.” Small businesses are expected to post signs reminding people to wear masks, but are not required to enforce the rules.

“The state places a high priority on voluntary compliance and is encouraged by Maine people and businesses who are taking the very real threat of the virus seriously by following the state’s health and safety protocols,” she said. “In the event of non-compliance, the state has the option of taking action against a facility’s operating license and violations of Executive Orders are a Class E crime, punishable by up to 180 days imprisonment and $1,000 fine.”

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder praised Mill’s action in a written statement, saying the order “reflects the severity of the current spread in Maine” and is “something we can all do to contribute to the health of our community.”

Several followers of Mainers Against Mask Mandates, a Facebook group with 776 members, say the governor’s new order goes too far.

“We see a mask mandate as symbolic of the growing suppression of free speech and individual rights that has resulted from the COVID-19 crisis, and we are focusing on this one issue as a way to fight back against government overreach,” the group states on its Facebook page.

“Here we go. Another step for making it a law,” one member posted after learning about Mills’ mask mandate.

“Haven’t worn one (mask) yet in any store. Damn sure not wearing one outside. The mask Nazis will be out in full force now,” another follower posted.

Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor at Harvard Global Health Institute, said mask mandates are helpful, and one of many tools that can be used to try to get a handle on COVID-19 as cases continue to surge nationwide. He said mask-wearing, improved testing, contact tracing, physical distancing and limits on large gatherings can work together to limit spread.

“It’s not about individual plays,” Tsai said. “We need a game plan for all four quarters.”

The new cases reported Thursday include 46 in Cumberland County, 35 in York County and 20 in Kennebec County. Since the pandemic began, 7,260 Maine people have fallen ill with COVID-19, and 150 have died.

Nationally, more than 100,000 new infections are being reported daily, with 15 states setting records Thursday for new daily cases and 11 reporting record numbers of hospitalizations. Around New England, Massachusetts reported 1,761 new cases Thursday, New Hampshire 275, and Vermont 36 – its highest daily total since June 4.

To try to keep pace with increasing volume, the Maine CDC is hiring more contact tracers and case investigators, with 20 to soon be redeployed – some starting as soon as Monday – and at least an additional dozen in the coming weeks.

“We are continuing to turn up that dial,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the CDC.

Community transmission in households is becoming more common as the weather gets colder and people are more likely to congregate indoors, but outbreaks are also occurring.

One of the state’s major outbreaks is at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where 104 cases were reported Wednesday, 95 among inmates and nine staff members.

New outbreaks were reported Wednesday at Hope Baptist Church in Manchester, with five cases; six cases among staff at Calais Regional Hospital; three at CrossFit gym in Augusta and three at Advanced Health physical therapy in Augusta.

The University of Maine also reported an outbreak Thursday after five employees who work in administrative roles in the offices of Facilities Management tested positive for the virus. Some of the employees are experiencing symptoms while isolating at home with the support of the university and Maine CDC, the university said in a written statement.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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